A guide to using drones to study wildlife: first, do no harm


Jarrod Hodgson and Lian Pin Koh

Technological advances have provided many benefits for environmental research. Sensors on southern elephant seals have been used to map the Southern Ocean, while tracking devices have given us a new view of mass animal migrations, from birds to zebras.

Miniaturisation of electronics and improvements in reliability and affordability mean that consumer drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) are now improving scientific research in a host of areas. And they are growing more popular for wildlife management, as well as research.

Wildlife drones can be used in many different ways, from small multi-rotor units that can scare invasive birds away from crops, to fixed-wing aircraft that fly above rainforests to spot orangutan nests. UAVs have also been shown to provide more precise data than traditional ground-based techniques when it comes to monitoring seabird colonies.

Other industries, from mining to window-cleaning, are looking at using drone technology. Some forecasts predict that the global market for commercial applications of UAVs will be valued at more than US$127 billion. Given their usefulness in the biologist’s toolkit, the uptake of UAVs for environmental monitoring is likely to continue.

But this proliferation of drones raises questions about how best to regulate the use of these aircraft, and how to ensure that wildlife do not come to harm.

A UAV-mounted camera provides an aerial view of a Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) in North Sumatra.
L. P. Koh

Wildlife disturbance

Biologists carrying out field studies are typically interested in animals’ natural state, or how their behaviour changes when conditions are altered. So it is important to know whether the UAVs disturb the animals and, if so, exactly how.

Of course, different species in different environments are likely to have very different responses to the presence of a UAV. This will also depend on the type of UAV and how it is used. Our current understanding of wildlife responses is limited.

A team of French and South African biologists observed the reaction of semi-captive and wild birds to UAVs. They found that the approach angle had a significant impact on the birds’ reaction, but approach speed, UAV colour and flight repetition did not.

In polar regions, where UAVs may be particularly useful for sampling inaccessible areas, researchers found that Adélie penguins were more alert when a UAV was in range, particularly at low altitudes.

These studies, and similar observational studies on other animals besides birds, provide an initial understanding of wildlife behaviour. But the animals’ behaviour is only one aspect of their response – we still need to know what happens to their physiology.

Cardiac bio-loggers fitted to a small number of free-roaming American black bears in northwestern Minnesota have shown that UAV flights increased the bears’ heart rates by as much as 123 beats per minute. Even an individual in its winter hibernation den showed stress responses to a UAV flying above.

Interestingly, the bears rarely showed any behavioural response to the drones. This shows that just because animals do not appear visually disturbed, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not stressed.

A code of practice

We have developed a code of best practice, published today in the journal Current Biology, which seeks to mitigate or alleviate potential UAV disturbance to wildlife. It advocates the precautionary principle in lieu of sufficient evidence, encouraging researchers to recognise that wildlife responses are varied, can be hard to detect, and could have severe consequences.

Jarrod Hodgson launches a fixed-wing UAV on Macquarie Island.
J. Hodgson

It also provides practical recommendations. The code encourages the use of equipment that minimises the stimulus to wildlife. Using minimum-disturbance flight practices (such as avoiding threatening approach trajectories or sporadic flight movements) is advised. The code also recognises the importance of following civil aviation rules and effective maintenance and training schedules, and using animal ethics processes to provide oversight to UAV experiments.

The code isn’t just food for thought for biologists. It is relevant to all UAV users and regulators, from commercial aerial videographers to hobbyists. Unintentionally or otherwise, such users may find themselves piloting drones close to wildlife.

Our code urges the UAV community to be responsible operators. It encourages awareness of the results of flying in different environments and the use of flight practices that result in minimum wildlife disturbance.

Low-impact conservation

As researchers continue to develop and refine UAV wildlife monitoring techniques, research that quantifies disturbance should be prioritised. This research will need to be multi-faceted, because responses could vary between species or individuals, as well as over time and in different environments. Greater knowledge could help us to draw up species-specific guidelines for drone use, to minimise disturbance on a case-by-case basis.

UAVs are a useful wildlife monitoring tool. We need to proactively develop and implement low-impact monitoring techniques. Doing so will expand our technological arsenal in the battle to manage Earth’s precious and increasingly threatened wildlife.

The Conversation

Jarrod Hodgson, PhD Candidate and Lian Pin Koh, Associate Professor

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Eat locals: swapping sheep and cows for kangaroos and camels could help our environment


Euan Ritchie, Deakin University and Adam Munn, UNSW Australia

We may be what we eat, but our dietary choices also affect the health of the environment, and farmers’ back pockets.

Energy and water use, native habitat cut down for crops and grazing, and emissions that exacerbate climate change, are just some of the profound effects agriculture has on Earth. And, there are more and more mouths to feed.

Perversely, both starvation and obesity are severe health issues across the world. With agriculture confronted by economic and environmental uncertainties, society faces enormous challenges.

But challenges also offer great opportunities. Drastically rethinking what we eat, and where and how food is produced, could help our health, the planet, and our farming businesses.

That means eating fewer sheep and cows, and more kangaroos, feral animals, and insects.

Unsustainable farming

Australia’s rangelands – the drier regions of the country predominantly used for livestock and grazing – cover about 80% of the country. They are often in poor condition and economically unviable. In part, this is due to the fact we still farm many animals, mostly in ways that are unsuited to the Australian climate and environment.

Hard-hoofed animals contribute to soil compaction and erosion, and have even been linked to the spread of the invasive cane toad. But the environmental impact of intensive stock farming extends much further.

Continuing to farm using a European-derived, intensive system is a recipe for land degradation and environmental collapse, especially with the compounding impacts of climate change (severe weather events, more frequent and intense droughts, and fires).

Starving stock in Julia Creek, Qld (1952).
Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 4413

Past and current agricultural practices have also profoundly altered our environment. It may be impossible to restore these lands to their original condition, so we must learn to operate in the new environment we’ve created.

More broadly, many experts have identified our meat consumption and intensive farming as a significant driver of global problems.

Treading lightly

To address these issues, we need a cultural shift away from intensive agriculture. The days of riding and relying on the sheep’s back, cattle’s hoof, or the more recent, and increasingly popular, chicken’s wing, may need to pass.

Native wildlife and some feral animals tread more lightly on the environment than intensively produced livestock do, and thus provide more sustainable options for food production on Australia’s arid lands. Kangaroos and goats place one-third of the pressure on grazing lands compared with sheep.

We already eat some of these animals, but could arguably eat more of them, including feral goats, camels, deer, rabbits, pigs, and buffalo, as well as native emus and kangaroos.

Camels are already on the menu.
Camel image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Yet more extreme proposals could include feral donkeys, cats, horses; and even cane toads. Horses are already consumed in Europe and cats in central Australia.

Eating more feral and native animals, and relying less on chicken, sheep, domestic pigs, and cattle would help meet ethical concerns too. Wild animals such as kangaroos are killed quickly, without the extended stress associated with industrialised farming, containment, and transportation to abattoirs.

And by harvesting sometimes overabundant wild native animals (such as kangaroos) and feral species, we may be able to reduce their impacts on ecosystems, which include overgrazing and damage to waterways.

An even greater leap would be to eat fewer four-limbed animals and more six-legged creatures. Insects are often high in protein and low in fat, and can be produced in large numbers, efficiently and quickly. They are already consumed in large numbers in some regions, including Asia.

Evidence that a market for such a food revolution exists is that shops are already popping up selling mealworm flour, ant seasoning salt, and cricket protein powder, among other delicacies.

A six-legged diet is even better.
Insect image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Boom and bust

Thanks to Australia’s variable climate, swinging between drought and flood, many farms are also tied to a boom-and-bust cycle of debt and credit.

As the climate becomes increasingly unpredictable, this economic strategy must be detrimental to the farmers, and is shown by many farm buy-backs or sell-offs.

It makes sense to use species that are naturally more resilient and able to respond to boom-and-bust cycles. Kangaroos and other species can forage on our ancient and typically nutrient-poor soils without the need for nutritional supplements (such as salt licks), and are physiologically more efficient at conserving water. This could lead to a more sustainable supply of food and income for farmers, without the dizzying economic highs but also without the inevitable prolonged and despairing lows.

Future-proofing

To be clear, we are not suggesting completely replacing livestock, but diversifying and tailoring enterprises to better suit Australia’s environment.

To support more diverse agricultural enterprises we will need to overcome many obstacles, such as licences to hunt, what we’re comfortable consuming, and land use regulation. But we shouldn’t shy away from these challenges. There are tremendous opportunities for rural, regional and Indigenous communities, and indeed cities too.

We need a more diverse mix of meat to adapt to the pressures of a growing population and climate change. Supermarket aisles that display beef, chicken, pork and lamb, alongside kangaroo, camel, deer, goat, and insects, could be just what the environmental, health and economic doctors ordered.

The Conversation

Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University and Adam Munn, Adjunct lecturer, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.